Thought Catalog
July 16, 2014

“My God, Kill This Thing!”: Natural-History Gothic

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At about eight in the evening of Saturday, the fifth of February, 1818, Matthew Lewis was tucking into dinner on his sugar plantation in Savanna-la-Mar, Jamaica. He had been away in England, he writes, in his Journal of a West India Proprietor; during his absence, the behavior of the “upwards of three hundred and thirty negroes” who worked his land had been “reasonably good,” he was pleased to hear. For their part, his slaves had “express[ed] themselves satisfied with their situation and their superintendents”; their joy at his return from England was “quite sufficiently vociferous” to quell any doubts on that count. Presumably, Lewis was in a God’s-in-his-heaven-and-all’s-right-with-the-world mood—or was, until “a large centipede dropped from the ceiling upon my dinner-table, and was immediately cut in two exact halves by one of the guests,” as he reports in his Journal of a West India Proprietor (1834).

For all we know, Lewis may have been amused by this amuse-bouche. His taste for the gothic was well-documented: he swapped ghost stories with Byron and the Shelleys at Byron’s Villa Diodati in Geneva, where Frankenstein was born, and at the precocious age of 20 wrote The Monk (1796), a classic of gothic horror that helped pave the way for the genre as we know it. The missing link between German Romanticism and Tales from the Crypt, The Monk dishes up its gothic shudders with side servings of decadence and depravity. Ambrosio, the monk of the title, is a “monster of hypocrisy” (as Richard Davenport-Hines puts it in Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin) whose Capuchin habit conceals an insatiable appetite for blasphemy, black magic, rape, torture, and murder. He imprisons Agnes, a sweet young thing, in a nunnery’s underground vaults, among the decomposing dead. There, she gives birth to her lover Raymond’s baby; the child dies, but Agnes clings to it, her sole comfort in the sepulchral gloom, even as it rots into “a mass of putridity,” her “slumbers constantly interrupted by some obnoxious Insect crawling over [her],” her “fingers ringed with the long worms, which bred in the corrupted flesh of [her] Infant.”

Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk (1796) is a centerpiece of Gothic literature.
Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk (1796) is a centerpiece of Gothic literature.

Insects reappear as emblems of corruption—of the spirit as well as the flesh—at the end of the book, when Ambrosio, who has sold his soul to the devil, is hurled off a mountaintop by demons to expire in agony, a warm-up for eternal torment in Hell: “Myriads of insects…drank the blood which trickled from Ambrosio’s wounds; He had no power to drive them from him, and they fastened upon his sores, darted their stings into his body, covered him with their multitudes, and inflicted on him tortures the most exquisite and insupportable.”

Creeping things seem to have held a special fascination for Lewis. After his quick-thinking companion bisected his uninvited dinner guest, he was curious to know if Jamaican lore regarding the freakish powers of the “reptile,” as he called it, had any basis in fact. Would the severed parts re-unite, as local belief held? Or would they “reproduce their missing members, and continue to live as stoutly as ever”?

Lewis conducted a suitably gothic experiment:

I put both parts into a plate, under a glass cover. On Sunday they continued to move about their prison with considerable agility, although the tail was evidently much more lively and full of motion than the head: perhaps the centipede was a female. On Monday the head was dead, but the tail continued to run about, and evidently endeavoured to make its escape, although it appeared not to know very well how to set about it, nor to be perfectly determined as to which way it wanted to go… On Wednesday, at twelve o’clock, its vivacity was a little abated, but only a little; the wound was skinned over, and I was waiting anxiously to know whether it would subsist without its numskull till a good old age, or would put forth an entirely spick and span new head and shoulders…

Come Thursday morning, both dead head and live tail had vanished. Had “some of the negro servants…thrown them away through ignorance,” as Lewis suspected, though they denied the accusation “most stoutly”? On the other hand, “a paper case, pierced in several places” had at some point been substituted for the glass cover; perhaps the tail “made its escape through one of these air-holes, and carried its head away with it in its forceps.” Whatever the explanation, one thing was certain: Lewis was “disappointed beyond measure,” he declared, “at being deprived of this opportunity of reading the last volume of ‘The Life and Adventures of a Centipede’s Tail.’”

Giant centipede 16 cm long, photographed by John Hill
Giant centipede 16 cm long, photographed by John Hill

This wasn’t his first encounter with violent bifurcation. When he was six, his mother ran off with the music master and, allegro con brio, gave birth to their love child; Lewis’s father petitioned the House of Lords for a divorce but the lords declined, forcing the dismembered couple, which lived apart, to remain joined in name if not in flesh, as scripture has it. Forgive my Freud, but what would a depth psychologist make of Lewis’s curiosity about an arthropod’s ability to reassemble itself after being cut in two or, better yet, regrow its Better Half? Did the gothic novelist’s amateur-naturalist routine conceal an infantile fantasy of making whole again what man—or, more accurately, woman—had put asunder? And what’s this about presuming the centipede is female because its severed tail is “much more lively and full of motion” than the moribund head? “Tail” has been slang for ladyparts since the Middle Ages, evolving over time to mean “prostitute” or, as the OED puts it, “women regarded collectively (by men) as a means of sexual gratification.” Is Lewis alluding, if only unconsciously, to his mother’s wanton ways, which earned his father—the head of the family, in the England of his day—the everlasting shame of the cuckold?

Or maybe Lewis, an insufferable snob who was regarded with an ick in some circles, felt some sympathy with centipedes as fellow pariahs. (A gentlewoman, writing in 1808, described the young Lewis as “a slim, skinny, finical fop, of modish address, with a very neatly rounded pair of legs and a very ugly face. His looks have nothing manly in them; but he looks, by his airs, as if he thought himself a little Arthur Wellesley [the dashing 1st Duke of Wellington, heroic general of the Napoleonic Wars]; he seems so dapper, so jaunty, so sprack, so pert, and lively. His eyes are small, and, in general, watery; but, at tea-time…they sparkle, roll and twinkle away most merrily, at every woman around the table. …and he tries to be particular with any one of us who may happen to sit near him; spouting forth glibly…in a lack-a-daisy kind of way, with an ill-breath; and ‘grinning horribly a ghastly smile’”—here the lady paraphrases Milton in Paradise Lost: “Death grinn’d horrible a ghastly smile”—“as if to show us all his jagged and slovenly teeth.” Clearly, not a fan.)

I choose to see Lewis’s unfinished “Life and Adventures of a Centipede’s Tail” as an early foray into Natural-History Gothic, that chimerical genre where Freud and Jean-Henri Fabre (the poet laureate of 19th-century entomology) are joined at the hip; where the Praying Mantis devouring her mate in flagrante delicto and the Black Widow armed with venom 15 times more potent than a rattlesnake’s, far more powerful than it needs to kill the small insects it preys on, are Aesop’s fables for existentialists, Darwinian homilies for a godless Eden.

*

Was Lewis’s tale of the severed (but still lively) tail and the decapitated (but still sensate) head just so much gothic fiction written, like Frankenstein, in the key of science? I sought out Greg Edgecombe at the Natural History Museum in London; he, if anyone, would know if Lewis’s horror story about the halves of a dismembered centipede scurrying around their improvised terrarium “as stoutly as ever” was fact or fancy.

Edgecombe looms large in the not exactly crowded field of centipede research. (Even scientists, it turns out, aren’t immune to the laws of attraction and repulsion: charismatic animals tend to be well-studied—who doesn’t love butterflies?—while those that inspire universal revulsion, like centipedes, are given a wide berth, even by biologists.) An arthropod paleontologist by training, Edgecombe got into the centipede business through his interest in tracing Arthropoda’s evolutionary branchings back to the phylum’s earliest ancestors. Working his way through the DNA sequences of living specimens and the anatomy of evolutionary forebears in a fossil record spanning 420 million years, Edgecombe hopes to fit Myriapoda, the arthropod subphylum comprising centipedes and millipedes, “into the grand scheme of arthropod history.” It’s a quest that has taken him to the jungles of Africa, Tasmania, and New Caledonia and, via Chinese fossil fields and Cenozoic amber from Burma, into deep time.

Wondering about Lewis’s account of the severed body parts of the centipede scuttling around their prison “with considerable agility,” I asked Edgecombe, “This is not, in any universe, even remotely possible, is it?”

It is, on this of all planets. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes and it is fascinatingly macabre,” he told me. “I have a PhD student in Bangkok who’s documenting the Scolopendromorphaof Thailand, so once a year I go there and we go to endless Buddhist temples where you can collect without a lot of paperwork.” (Scolopendromorpha is an order of the centipede class Chilopoda comprising the larger, more aggressive centipedes, some species of which have been known to attain lengths of 33 centimeters, or a little over a foot. Scolopendromorphs prey on earthworms, insects, lizards, mice, birds up to the size of a sparrow, and, in the case of the aptly named Scolopendra gigantea, even bats. “The World’s Largest Centipede,” an episode of the BBC program Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan, features footage, in gut-churning slow motion, of Scolopendra gigantea dangling from the roof of a Venezuelan cave, snapping bats out of the air.) “There are something like 32,000 Buddhist temples scattered around Thailand, and there’s generally nice forest around [them], very good habitat. Any place called wat is a temple; you go to the next wat, which is usually five miles down the road, and you ask the monk, ‘Hey, mate, d’ya mind if we scratch around and look for some centipedes?’ He looks at you like you’re slightly mad and says, ‘Go for it!’ So that’s where we often do our collecting.

“Anyway, one of us must have scooped up a thing called Otostigmus rugulosus, which grows to about three inches long, a fairly smallish scolopendrid”—a member of the family Scolopendridae, having 21 trunk leg pairs and primitive eyes composed of four ocelli on each side of head—“and he must have picked it up rather roughly and broken it because what crawled out onto our tray was the last leg pair and maybe six or seven segments in front of it—basically, the back half of a scolopendrid. It proceeded, despite not having a head and not having a brain, to walk around in our tray, and we stared at it and we could not believe—somehow, it was able, simply with the ganglia in the ventral nerve cord, to walk around, looking frightfully normal in its gait. It didn’t look drunk or anything; it was setting up the normal metachronal wave—that wavelike thing you see when arthropods step, certain legs will be on the ground and certain ones will be up in a fairly predictable manner.” Edgecombe and his student stared at the thing, aghast. “At a certain point we just said, ‘My God, kill this thing!’ It was actually freaking us out.”

Edgecombe, it should be obvious, is a man not easily freaked. He chose centipedes as his life’s work, after all, and is never happier than when he’s got a lively specimen of, say, Scolopendra gigantea gamboling—if a foot-long centipede can be said to gambol—around his collection tray. His voice turns dreamy when he describes the day he “got bitten”—figuratively—by centipedes. He was “bushwalking” in a patch of rainforest an hour or so outside Sydney, collecting specimens. (Edgecombe, who was born in Canada but considers himself “Australian by disposition”—he spent 1993 to 2007 as a researcher at the Australian Museum in Sydney, and has the Aussie accent to prove it—occasionally lapses into Crocodile Dundee-isms.) Most of the centipedes he was finding had never been described, he realized, for the simple reason that few systematists—scientists who classify organisms—specialize in documenting the diversity of Australian centipedes. All that wide-open territory: the thought of it made him intellectually giddy. Not that he’d deny the emotional jolt he felt when he came face to face with “this really beautiful centipede, about 35 millimeters or so long—a really, really sexy thing.” Where most of us would have cringed in revulsion, Edgecombe experienced something like awe, that breathless fascination in the presence of the untouchably cool. “It looked a bit like Satan,” he says. “It had big, meaty antennae, it was red, and it was just very punk-looking.”

The brainless hindquarters of a scolopendrid doing the metachronal wave around your specimen tray, though? That’s fucked up. TC mark

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